Dr. Gbolahan Alli-Balogun I Had My PhD at 26 but Still Ambitious

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SATURDAY MEMOIRS

“I don’t have regret about life because I have enjoyed the ride” was his response when asked about his view to life at 60 as he welcomes this reporter into his Ikeja, Lagos office. Looking smart in a navy blue suits, his ageless looks contradicts a man who would turn 60 in a couple of hours. Without doubt, Dr. Gbolahan Alli-Balogun’s life is a lesson in hardwork, perseverance and above all, that one should never take one’s pedigree for granted. Born on June 26, 1957 into the famous Alli-Balogun family of Lagos Island. Apart from his solid pedigree which gave him a comfortable start in life, he is a brilliant and jolly good fellow, whose penchant for quality education has invariably paved the way for his many successes. He is not only integrity personified, he is also imbued with sterling qualities and a sense of humour that is second to none. He had his early education in Lagos before proceeding to Abeokuta for his secondary education. At age 17 in 1974, he gained admission to the then University of Ife where he read economics graduating in 1978 when he was barely 21. He would later cap it with a masters and doctoral degree in Economics at age 26. After a successful career at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs and the banking sector, he walked away to start his own business. In 2004, he floated AdonaiNet which later pioneered the trade alert in Nigeria. He has since conquered many terrains in his career life and still ready to explore. As he turns 60 he tells Funke Olaode his journey through life and why he is not ready to slow down

• I was once the youngest student in my class

In the beginning

I was born in Lagos on June 26, 1957 into the Alli-Balogun family of Lagos Island. It was interesting growing up in what is called Moshalasi Jimoh area where the Central Mosque is located now. As of that time it was referred to as Victoria. It was a neighbourhood where everybody was related either by blood or by marriage. It was a big community and there was communal living where everyone radiated happiness. We had a good life by standard of that time because my mother was a flourishing trader and my father was a government contractor. Of course, having accomplished parents and coming from such famous family placed a burden of expectation on us (the children) to succeed.

Factors that shaped my life
There are many factors that shaped my life while growing up. One of them was my mother of blessed memory. I was doing well in class but she insisted that I must succeed and she supported me up till she died four years ago. The second person was Mrs. Gibson Roberts, a native of Abeokuta who made every effort to make me an English gentleman. She was my teacher in primary school at Christ Church Cathedral. I was her best student and she liked me a lot. She was so fond of me that she once asked my parents if I could spend one Saturday with her – her wish was granted. That time she had four children: two boys and two girls. The two boys were in England, one of the girls was in school, while the other girl, Mrs. Dolapo Coker, was preparing to go to the University of Ife. Then Mama asked my parents if I could come and live with her permanently. I was only 10 years old. I agreed and moved to live with Mrs. Gibson Roberts and only visited my parents during mid-term breaks or long holidays. I was nicknamed ‘Omo Mama’ because I was always with her. Then I became close to Mama’s daughter, now Mrs. Dolapo Coker, who is 10 years older than me. She was so fond of me back then that she would take me everywhere and anywhere.

I was the youngest student in my class at Ife
I spent only two and half years with Mrs. Gibson Roberts before heading for Abeokuta Grammar School which was her idea. Mama was from Abeokuta and she felt I would do well in Abeokuta. Of course, I got admission from CMS, Igbobi and other schools. In fact, she took me on a trip to Abeokuta prior to my resumption. Incidentally, Abeokuta Grammar School was the first grammar school in the then Western Nigeria founded in 1908 and had a lot of traditions. I got there and got hooked. I spent five good years in there and moved to the University of Ife at age of 17 in 1974, where I studied Economics. I recall being the youngest in my class. I always scored highest mark in Economics and the rest of the courses and I knew it was my line. I finished my West African Examination Council in June 1974 and by September of that year I entered University of Ife. Along the line I wanted to study Law because most of my friends were studying Law and I wanted to explore. But before you can change your course at Ife then you have to fail and change your department. But I didn’t fail in my department and that ambition of becoming a lawyer was truncated. I finished from this great institution in 1978. We had a good time at Ife because we were blessed with the best teachers locally and internationally. We had the likes of Prof. Aluke, Prof. Oluwasanmi and Prof. Ojetunji Aboyade. Prof. Aboyade taught us Integrated Economics. These were brilliant Nigerian scholars who taught and mentored us as students.

I bagged a doctoral degree at 26
Looking back at my life in the last 60 years it has been a roller-coaster. Life has been very fair to me because things that I did not plan and success that I did not envisage came my way sometimes without even trying. I was lucky because I was a good student. I went to school for 21 years non-stop and in 1978 I had bagged a degree in Economics and at the age of 26 I had a doctoral degree in Economics. I could have had a PhD at 24 because by the time I was 26 I had spent one year for the mandatory youth service and another one year learning a foreign language in Poland, where I did my master’s degree and PhD. I was typically the youngest in my class at Ife and deep inside me I knew that I didn’t know anything. I was just a small boy who happened to be a good student. I was not interested in working and said I would further my education. With modesty, I have always been known to do unusual things. I always like to do my things differently which has become a habit. When I left Ife, I had opportunity to travel to America or England. I chose Latin America where I would learn Spanish or go to Eastern Europe such as Germany and all that. I applied for the two and the first that came was to go to Poland. I opted for it and travelled to Poland where I spent the next five years. I learnt Polish for one year. They had a very good language school with a nickname ‘Tower of Babel’ because it was like a melting point of different nationals. It was a good school which prepared me for academic excellence in that country.

I began my career at NIIA
I came back to Nigeria in September 1984 and joined the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs as a research fellow. Coincidentally, it was the place I envisaged to work before coming to Nigeria and it clicked for me. When I got back it was when the Eastern Europe was boiling and NIIA didn’t have a specialist in that field to interpret it. That job proved 0as a challenge at the inception of my career because I was fresh from school without any job experience and at the same time I had to prove myself. And that put me on my toes. I proved myself and had a great time at NIIA. I spent three and half years in NIIA. I could say that my time at the NIIA led me into banking. While I was in the institute I was practically on the television, being interviewed on the radio and always in the newspaper every week. I gave lectures and attended various symposia. So I moved to Eko International Bank as a pioneer staff in 1988. A bank was to be set up by a white man and out of the blue he said he wanted to see me. He wrote me a letter and I went to see him. This man said someone had recommended me. His job is setting up banks, run it for three years and move to another country. This white man said he understood banking but not economics.
He needed an economist who will work closely with him and explain the Nigerian economy to him, to guide investment proposal, the interest rates, and anticipation of inflation and what borrowing and lending would look like. And he said, ‘Would you do it for me?’ I said yes but with an offer. He made an offer and it was five times of what I was earning in the institute. That was how I left the institute and joined Eko bank. After two years I got bored and went to the managing director that my job wasn’t tasking enough that I would love to be working from home. Again, the treasurer of the bank had just resigned and they couldn’t find another person. My MD just said that I have been attending the treasury meetings with them every morning and the decision taken was always based on my recommendations. So he advised me to add treasury to my portfolio. I enjoyed it while it lasted before moving to First Bank where I spent 14 years and quit paid employment.

Pioneering the alert mechanism in Nigeria
The idea of becoming my own boss was conceived while at a First Bank training in South Africa. I was in a class when my South African colleagues received an alert on his phone. South Africa had a GSM by that time. He looked at the alert and just hissed. Out of curiosity I asked him what was it he said he got an alert on a transaction on his bank account through a cheque he dropped a while ago. I was amazed and I was like: ‘is this possible?’ and he said yes. You know such system was alien to Nigeria and since that day I couldn’t sleep. And for me I never knew such thing existed. It was like a magic and I made up my mind that I would venture into it. I resigned from First Bank and I brought in a technical partner to start that technology. I floated a company, AdonaiNet. Luckily, the then Director General of the Nigerian Stock Exchange, Dr. (Mrs.) Okereke-Onyuike, saw me and inquired about my next move after living the bank and I told him my new project I was trying to introduce to the Nigerian banks. She said it could also work at NSE. She advised me to start with NSE because people who buy stocks would be able to get alerts on their phones whenever there is any movement or transaction on their accounts. That was how trade alert mechanism was introduced into the Nigerian system in 2005/2006. Mrs. Okereke-Onyuike said I should test run with 100 customers. We did it and it worked. Then, she said we should move it to 1,000 and then we should try it on all transactions on the exchange. And brokers trading on other people’s shares without authorisation were caught. With its success we spread our tentacles to the banks and here we are. Also, we introduced Vehicle Licence Alert to the Lagos State Government. We later matched with autoreg which came on a big platform. And when the then Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, now President of African Development Bank, Dr. Akinwunmi Adesina, said Nigeria has 15 million farmers, we came up with a device (a close user group) for them. It works by paying a fixed amount every month and you can interact. Our first port of call was the Nigeria Police; we called it Police Communication (Polcom). This is what I have been doing in the last 14 years. I am also into consultancy.

I met my wife through her cousin
I have been married to my wife, Barrister Omotayo Alli-Balogun, a native of Abeokuta since 1987. When I came back to Nigeria after my studies in Poland she was introduced to me by her cousin, Hon. Justice Mosun Dipeolu of the Ogun State High Court. I had known Mosun much earlier because when I was in Abeokuta Grammar School, Mosun was in the girls’ arm. I re-established my relationship with Mosun when I returned. One day she came to my house with her cousin and we got introduced. And the attraction? She was just natural with no airs and she felt comfortable around me and even meeting me for the first time. We realised that our chemistry jelled and we started a relationship. We have been married almost 30 years and the union is blessed with three children (a boy and two girls). I have two lawyers and my last daughter is pursuing a degree in engineering abroad.

I am still ambitious
Considering the journey through life I thank God for helping me to navigate and excelled. Although life is not a bed of roses but life has taught me to persevere and never give up. It might take long but I know that I will get there. So, as s I clock 60 I am still ready to explore. Anybody who tells you that all his life’s aspirations have been fulfilled is probably not ambitious. I am an ambitious person and as I used to tell my friends that I am not going to retire. Age will slow me down though when the time comes; for now I am very agile. I will only go on semi-retirement but not total. I don’t have any regrets. I have enjoyed the ride and if giving a chance I will do it the same way all over again.